The Ten Commandments ( 1956) – part one


The idea of linking the struggles of the Israelites to the Americans was developed further in Cecil B. DeMille’s final film The Ten Commandments (1956). 

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In personally introducing the film, DeMille left no doubt of its political leanings.  He said the birth of Moses was the ‘birth of freedom’. 

The theme of this picture is whether men are to be ruled by God’s law – or they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses.  Are they free men or are they to be property of the State or free souls under God?  This same battle continues throughout the world today.[1]

He later used his speech as a basis for an address to the university of Southern California on 6 December 1956.  He changed the speech to reinforce his political point and linked the Israelite’ struggles with Hungary’s.

Are men to be free souls under God or are they the property of the state?  Are men to be ruled by law, or by the whims of an individual?  God’s answer to these timely questions were given three thousand years ago on Mount Sinai.  Russia’s answers was given recently in Hungary.  The world must make its choice.[2]

In his introduction to the film, DeMille was linking the Egyptian tyrannies to Russian communism.  DeMille saw religion as a political force which could deliver freedom to people.  In his autobiography, he made it clear that the film was anti-totalitarian.  He wrote:

For more than twenty years and increasingly in the years since World War II, people had been writing to me from all over he world, urging that I make The Ten Commandments again.  The world needs a reminder they said, of the Law of God; and it was evident in at least some of the letters that the world’s awful experience of totalitarianism, both fascist and communist, had made many people realize anew that the Law of God is the essential bedrock of human freedom.[3]

But it was definitely communism, not fascism, which was the target.  Recalling a press conference in Egypt, he denied that the film was anti-moslem.  He said one of the strongest voices urging him to make The Ten Commandments was the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who saw in the story of Moses, a prophet honored equally by Moslems, Jews and Christians, a means of welding together adherents of the three faiths against atheistic communism.[4]


[1] Ten Commandments (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Aeanas Mackenzie, Jesse L. Lasky Jnr., Jack Garriss, Frederic M. Frank.

[2] Cecil B. DeMille, Moses and Today, Address delivered to the University of Southern California on 6 December 1956.  Box 9, Folder 24, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[3] Donald Hayne, (ed.) The Autobiography of Cecil B. DeMille, W.H.Allen, London, 1960, p. 376.

[4] Ibid., p. 385.  The letter was kept by DeMille.  Mohammed Ali Jinnah to Cecil B. DeMille, 20 December 1954, Folder 3, Box 724 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

Quo Vadis?: the slaves defeat the masters

Dr Kevin Brianton

Honorary Associate: La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

Director Mervyn Le Roy (centre with pale trousers) jokes with Deborah Kerr on the set. Le Roy further developed the themes of the doomed empire.  Quo Vadis? focused on the burning of Rome by Emperor Nero and the martyrdom of early Christians. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Samson and Delilah’s successor Quo Vadis? (1951), directed by Mervyn LeRoy, built on the ideas of its predecessor. Quo Vadis? focused on the burning of Rome by Emperor Nero and the martyrdom of early Christians.  The film opened with columns of victorious troops returning to Rome after crushing a rebellion in Britain with the following voice over:

Imperial Rome is the centre of the empire.  An undisputed master of the world, but with power inevitably comes corruption.  No man is sure of his life.  The individual is at the mercy of the State.  Murder replaces justice.  Rulers of conquered nations surrendered their helpless subjects to bondage.  High and low alike become Roman slaves, Roman hostages.  There is no escape form the whip and the sword.  That any force on earth can shake this foundation, this pyramid of power and corruptions, of human misery and slavery seems inconceivable.  But 30 years before this day, on a Roman cross in Judea a miracle occurred.  A man died to make man free.  To spread the gospel of love and redemption.  Soon that cross will replace the proud eagles of the Roman legions.[1]

The opening lines anticipate the cold war speeches of Secretary of States Dulles.  ‘The individual at the mercy of the State’ sounds remarkably like Dulles’ belief tat the Soviets treated ‘human beings as primarily important from the standpoint of how much they can produce for the glorification of the state.’  And because of this failure to respect human values, the Roman State was doomed.  The cross of Christianity would replace the eagle of the Romans.  The slaves would defeat the masters.

Quo Vadis? began with the return of the victorious General Marcus Vinicius, played by Robert Taylor, from his battles in Britain.  He was a proud and stern commander who would have a soldier flogged for any disobedience.  He desired a Christian woman Lydia, played by Deborah Kerr.  She refused his advances because he owned slaves.  One of the major criticisms the Christians make of the Roman empire in the film is that they have slaves.  Indeed Lydia refused to marry Vinicius unless he gave all his slaves freedom.  George MacDonald Fraser in his survey of Hollywood’s historical epics has pointed out that the film is incorrect in its attempt to depict the early Christians as being anti-slavery.  He argues that Hollywood was always eager to suggest that its heroes were champions of universal liberty.  This was not the case as there were slave owners and slave dealers among the Christians.[2]  The biblical epics were not interested in historical accuracy, they were interested in presenting religion as a vibrant and powerful force against tyrannies.  To do so, the filmmakers were prepared to stretch an historical point or two to get their message across.  As a consequence, the early Christians were depicted as being against slavery.

Vinicius arranged through Emperor Nero for Lydia to be bought to him.  While pursuing Lydia, Vinicius began to see the justness of the Christian cause after hearing St Peter speak.  In the interim, Nero burned Rome and then attempted to use the Christians as a scapegoat for the burning.  When the Romans condemned St Peter, Christianity was represented as a rebellion against a totalitarian state.  The Romans said that Peter had preached blasphemy against the emperor and was crucified as a warning to all Christians.[3]

The Christians bravely sang hymns as they were devoured by lions or crucified or burnt to death.  Eventually the Roman crowd, moved by the courage of the Christians, revolted against Nero.  Vinicius and his new wife Lydia left Rome while order was restored.  At the conclusion of the film, Vinicius watched the Roman army march into restore order and reflected on the decline of Roman and other powers.

VINICIUS:Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome.  What follows?
SOLDIER:A more permanent world I hope?  With a more permanent faith?
VINICIUS:One is not possible without the other.[4]

LeRoy and his writers were arguing that the true faith of Christianity was the real foundation for an empire.  Empires built on different faiths would crumble, just as the Roman empire had fallen.  This message, which foreshadowed Dulles’ Watertown address would have been deeply reassuring for the American public who had witnessed the growth of communism following the Second World War.  The cultural myth created by these films said that despite its power and success, communism would collapse when faced with the Christian spirit of America.


[1] Quo Vadis?, (d) Mervyn Le Roy, (w) John Lee Marhin, S.N. Behrman, Sonya Levien.

[2] George MacDonald Fraser, Hollywood History of the World, Michael Joseph, London, 1988, p. 22.

[3] Quo Vadia? Op cit.

[4] Quo Vadis? op cit.

Samson and Delilah – the rise of the anticommunist biblical epic.

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia.

In 1948, film producer and director Leo McCarey, who was one of the most vocal anti-communist figures in Hollywood, wrote an article for The New York Times on the need for films with religious themes.[1]  McCarey wrote that the film industry had a tremendous opportunity for ‘education, enlightenment, and influence’.  He claimed there was a growing plea for motion pictures with a religious influence.  McCarey called for religious pictures that entertained.

In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Religion and its principles can be absorbingly and tellingly presented within the basic screen itself.  After all, the cinema would soon lose its influence, if it lost the primary function of entertainment.  As an example, the unentertaining, heavy handed pounding of a theme is one of the mistakes which the Communists repeatedly make in the filming of their Soviet propaganda.  Pictures which are so colossally dull that their points, if any, are already lost. [2]

McCarey argued for the tactful and tasteful use of religious stories to show the ‘goodness of good as against the banality and wastefulness of those living without beliefs.[3]  By contrasting religious films with Soviet propaganda, it is clear that McCarey, like many others, saw religion as an effective antidote to communism.  McCarey wanted religious films to be more effective propaganda than the Soviet efforts and he waned Hollywood to contribute to ensuring a deeper belief in religion throughout the world.  He looked forward to the production of The Robe to demonstrate he strength of his arguments.

On the same page, just below McCarey’s article, was a few notes on the production of a major biblical film called Samson and Delilah (1949).  The film was directed by the ultra-conservative Cecil B. DeMille who followed McCarey’s call for religious films with a message for the audience.  DeMille felt strongly that communism was a dangerous threat to world peace.  In fact Samson and Delilah (1949) had a message which matched his cold war views.  DeMille had been an active anti-communist in Hollywood politics.  He was praised by congressman John Rankin as being ‘literally burned up with the Communist activities of these subversive elements’ in Hollywood.[4]    He was a key player in Hollywood’s anti-communist community.  His films also strongly reflected his anti-communism.  DeMille spoke on the radio before the world premiere:

All the arts for 30 centuries have told the story of Samson and Delilah to all the peoples of the world.  They saw in Samson’s struggle something that is deep in all of us, a desire to be free form fear, tyranny and enslavement, a desire that should be in men’s hearts today.  To keep our liberty and freedom and let no man or men destroy or take them away.[6]

In a speech at Paramount Studios on 27 September 1950, where workers signed a ‘declaration of freedom’, he made his position on freedom clear.

The difference between Communism and freedom is not primarily political – or economic – or national.  It is expressed in one line in the Declaration of Freedom which you are asked to sign today – the line that reads: ‘I believe that all men derive the right to freedom equally under God.’  That is one of the most revolutionary lines that could be written.  Over against it stands the black reaction of the Kremlin, the idea that the creator and lord of human rights is not Got by Stalin.  Today, we make our choice – for slavery under Stalin or freedom under God…[7]

These ideas of freedom were weaved into DeMille’s biblical epics.  Samson and Delilah opens with a globe spinning in a greenish mist and the narrator DeMille saying:

Before the dawn of history, ever since the first man discovered his soul, he has struggled against the forces that sought to enslave him.  He saw the awful power of nature arrayed against him, the evil eye of lighting, the terrifying voice of thunder, the shrieking wind filled darkness enslaving his mind with shackles of fear.  Fear bred superstition, blinding his reason.  He was ridden by a host of devil gods, human dignity ravaged on the altar of idolatry and tyranny rose, grinding the human spirit beneath the conqueror’s free mind.

But deep in mans heart, still burned the unquenchable will for freedom.  When this divine spark inflames the heart of some mortal, whether priest or soldier, artist or patriot, lover or statesman, his deeds have changed the course of human events and his name survives the ages.[8]

The scene was set for conflict between Samson, who was a combination of ‘greatness and weakness’, and the Philistine empire.  The Philistines had held the Israelites in bondage and Samson wanted only ‘liberty for his nation’.[9]  In the Declaration of Independence, the United States was described as the land where the inalienable rights were the ‘preservation of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’.  The word ‘liberty’ was a clever and deliberate choice by DeMille and his writers to link the plight of the Israelites with America’s struggle for independence.

On the other side of the fence, the Philistines were depicted an evil totalitarian power, mostly dressed in red.  In one scene the Philistine lord of Gaza looked down at his ant nest and marveled how the master ants dominated the slave ants.  For the Philistine emperor, this was the natural order, just as the Jews were to be dominated by the Philistines.  The emperor instructed a guard on the merits of the social organisation of ants and how they should follow them.

The Philistines were a strong military power, but it was the spiritual strength of the Danites that eventually overcame the tyrants.  In one scene, Samson fought and destroyed the Philistine army with the jaw bone of an ass.  Samson’s strength was derived solely from God and when he chose the beautiful, but deadly, Delilah over the virtuous, but plain, Miranda, the source of his strength was betrayed and he was captured and tortured.  In the final scene, Samson was led into a huge temple where the massive statute of the false Philistine God Dogan stood.  Blinded and humiliated by the Philistines, Samson called on God and then demolished the temple singlehandedly.  The God of the Philistines, Dagon, was sent crushing down and all of the Philistines in the huge temple were destroyed.  The slaves had defeated the masters.

In Samson and Delilah, director Cecil B. DeMille had hit on a successful formula of a powerful and corrupt empire succumbing to the spiritual strength of the Jews or Christians.  It was no surprise to learn that Arnold Toynbee soon began lecturing on Samson and Delilah.[10]  DeMille took great care in making sure that his films communicated the right political message.  He was anxious that the picture would not be seen to parallel the events around the establishment of Israel.  The word Jew was never used throughout the picture, instead the director chose the word Danites, because Samson derived from the tribe of Dan.[11]


[1] New York Times 12 December 1948.

[2] New York Times 12 December 1948.  When McCarey had an opportunity to write and direct his own anti-communist film, the same criticisms could easily be applied to him.  See discussion on My Son John in blog on anti-communist films.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Congressional Record, 91, part 6, 17 July 1945, p. 7337.

[5] Sayre, Running Time, p. 207.  DeMille’s secretary Gladys Rosson wrote to the foundation on at lease one occasion to find out the political credentials of directors Herbert Biberman, Vincent Sherman, Irving Pichel, and Frank Tuttle.  DeMille Foundation For Political Freedom to Gladys Rosson, 7 April 1947, Box 124, Folder 7, Cecil B. DeMille Archives, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA.

[6] Cecil B. DeMille, Speech before World Premiere of Samson and Delilah, on 21 December 1949, Box 629, Folder 8 Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[7] Cecil B. DeMille, Crusade For Freedom, speech to workers at Paramount Studio on 27 September 1950.  Box 212 Folder 1, Cecil B. DeMille Archives.

[8] Samson and Delilah, (d) Cecil B. DeMille, (w) Jesse L. Lasky Jr, Frederick M. Frank.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Houston Post, 8 September 1949.

[11] New York Times, 14 December 1948.

Sexual and political tension in I Married A Monster From Outer Space

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University, Melbourne: Australia.

I Married A Monster From Outer Space (1958) was one of the final efforts in the alien subversion cycle.  The film had many of the elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  Aliens had been quietly taking over the bodies of people of a small American town.  The central takeover was that of Bill Farell, played by Tom Tryon, who was newly married to Marge, played by Gloria Talbott.  Marge suspected something was seriously wrong with Bill.  She followed him into the woods to find that he was meeting with his fellow aliens.  Marge tried to contact Washington, but the operator told her all the lines were down, and so she then tried to leave town, but was stopped by a police roadblock.  The aliens had taken over the police force and even her godfather had been replaced.  Eventually she convinced Dr Wayne of her story and he formed a posse to enter the woods.  After a brief struggle, they released the real townspeople who had wires attached to their heads to feed the aliens with their memories.  The aliens were destroyed and order was returned.

I Married a Monster from Outer Space reflected the themes developed in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The plan of the aliens was to mate with earth women and eventually take over the world. There is a clear amount of sexual tension. The above image shows the power less female in the hands of the ugly alien. Again communism is a form of seduction, close to a form of rape.  It was a subtle variation on the themes of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The aliens were once again ruthless and emotionless.  They killed when under any kind of threat.  The alien double for Bill even strangled a puppy.  The key scenes in the film were Marge’s attempts to tell people about the aliens.  She found the authorities overtaken by the aliens.  It was perhaps notable that it was the townspeople who freed themselves without the assistance of Washington.  The pattern was repeated less successfully in a number of other science fiction films and it even spawned a short lived television series called The Invaders.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the paranoia of suburbia/communism/ McCarthyism or all of the above.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was the cinematic pinnacle of the paranoia about subversion.  It was a popular film at the time of its release and his remained one of the most critically acclaimed of the 1950s science fiction films.  Dr Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, returned to Santa Mira, a small town in Southern Califiornia.  His nurse told him that there appeared to be a serious malady in the town and people were saying that their friends and relatives were lacking full emotion.  He saw a few cases with these symptoms and could not find a reason for the malady.  After further investigation, he found mysterious plants which began to resemble people and then take over them while they sleep.  Miles found that the police force had been taken over by these pods.  Eventually he escaped from Santa Mira with pod people following him.  He was found hysterically wandering along a highway screaming ‘You’re next.  They’re coming.  You’re next.’[1]  He finally alerted the authorities and the audience assumed that all will be well as Washington had been called.  For a low budget film, it received solid publicity form Allied Artists whose executives were shattered by the initial viewing.  Producer Walter Wanger insisted on a softer ending which explained the odd first and last scenes.  The ending was still strong, but there was a not of reassurance when a doctor decided to call the authorities.[2]  The changes probably helped the film’s success. The film originally ended with Kevin McCarthy running dazedly down the freeway, screaming ‘You’re next. You’re next.  The original ending in the script had Miles struck by a car.  Miles is found muttering ‘burn them. Burn them!  There’s no escape … No time to waste.  Unless you do, you’ll be next.’  The producers made Siegel tack on an introductory scene and a final scene where Washington is notified.  The ending of the novel has Becky and Miles facing the enemy and deciding to make a final stand against the pods despite certain capture.  They manage to burn some of the pod people by pouring petrol into a ditch.  They are captured but the pods decide that the planet is too inhospitable and fly off into space.  Santa Mira is saved. 

Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The pod people were regimented society and lacked any signs of individuality.  The vegetable metaphor had connotations with the growth of communism in fertile American soil, similar to the alien in The Thing.  The pod people were cold and emotionless with few personal feelings about life.  They do not even wince when a dog was run over in front of them.  Their way of life was extremely organised and authoritarian.

Interpretations differ wildly about the film, from the anti-McCarthyism to anti-communism to anti-conformism.  The anti-McCarthyist interpretation argues that it is American authorities which are being controlled by the pods.  The pods control the government, law enforcement agencies and communications and enforce the political line of the country.  The pods represented the McCarthyite forces in America attempting to strip away all political opposition.  And the film certainly does mirror the hysteria, the sense of paranoia, the authoritarian police and the witch-hunt atmosphere, but there are too many holes in the argument.  One critical scene was a speech by one of the pod people who talked to Miles about the world under the pod people.  The philosophy was that there will ne no feeling, no free will, no moral choice, no anger, no tears, no pain, no passion and no emotion.  It will mean being ‘reborn into an untroubled world, where everybody’s exactly the same.’[3]  In this world, there is no need for love or emotion.  ‘Love, ambition, desire, faith – without them, life is so simple.’ the alien explained.[4]  The alien of The Thing had resurfaced in human form.  In response, Miles said ‘only when we have to fight to stay human, do we realise how precious our humanity is.’[5]  From this speech it was difficult to see how the film could be read as anything other than fear of communism.  In the pod society, there were no emotions, and while that meant no love, it also ruled out hate, war, and crimes of passion.  It would be a world without discord.  To Americans in the late 1950s, a society which denied freedom of thought – or emotions – was a communist society.  The arguments about Invasion of the Body Snatchers being anti-McCarthyite are clever but not convincing.

Film historian Stuart Samuels’ view was that the pods represented the spectre of conformity in American life.  The popular books of the 1950s were Reisman’s The Lonely Crowd, Whyte’s The Organisational Man and Packard’s The Status Seekers which depicted a society that was moving away form rugged individualism to the security of the group.  The group demanded conformity in exchange for economic security.[6]  The film was against social conformity, but it was the conformity forced on a community by an invader.  Samuels’ argument that it was an attack on social conformity ignores one important scene which was almost a carbon copy from the anti-communist film Red Nightmare.  In the scene, the townspeople gathered in the central square to receive their orders for the day.  A jeep drove up and military official handed out orders and pods were distributed.  Noel Carroll in the Soho News described the scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as the ‘quintessential Fifties image of socialism.’[7]  People were not only stripped of personality, but regimented to take over the rest of the United States.  It was a vision of communism first subverting and then overthrowing the United States.


[1] Al LaValley, (ed.) Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rutgers University Press, London, 1989.

[2] See LaValley, p. 122.

[3] Ibid p. 88.

[4] Ibid p. 88.

[5] Ibid p. 82.

[6] Stuart Samuels, The Age of Conspiracy and Conformity: Invasion of the Body Snatchers in John E. O’Connor, and Martin A. Jackson (ed.).  American History/ American Film: Interpreting the Hollywood Image, Continuum, New York, 1988, pp. 203 – 219.

[7] Danny Peary, Cult Movies, Vermillion, UK, 1982, p. 157.

Aliens Invade: The Day the Earth Stood Still and and The Thing

The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked. 
Image courtesy of EmoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

By far the most popular type of science fiction film in the 1950s were the alien invasion films.  The peak of their popularity was in the early to mid 1950s which also matched the most unsettling time of the cold war.  The cycle of alien invasion films began in earnest in America with two films in 1951, The Thing and The Day the Earth Stood Still.  These films were remarkably similar in structure but contain almost diametrically opposed ideas.  The tension in the films clustered around the relationship between the scientists, military and alien invaders.  The scientist was depicted in both films as being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being allied with humanitarian or liberal groups and being in conflict with the military in how to deal with the aliens.  In The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien flying saucer landed in Washington with an important message to the people of the world.  The politicians didn’t want to talk to the alien as a group because of mutual suspicions and hatreds, while the military just wanted to blast him.  The alien Klaatu, played by Michael Rennie, seemed to be a sober non-threatening being with exceptional intelligence.  He had great power at his command and with a few twirls of the dial of the saucer could bring the world to a momentary halt.  The military reacted to this demonstration by wanting him destroyed, while the scientists wanted to hear his message.  Klaatu’s message was that the world must stop the spread of nuclear of weapons or face destruction.

Screenwriter Edmund H. North and director Robert Wise played on the sympathies of the American audience by showing Klaatu admiring the Lincoln monument.  He told a child that Lincoln looked like a great man, the type of man who would listen to his important message to the world.  The child replied that there was a man like that working in Washington called Dr Barnhardt.  By using the icon of Lincoln in the film, the screenwriter and director were indicating to the audience that Klaatu’s message was important and correct.  North and Wise then linked the wisdom of Lincoln to the scientists.  The scientist Dr Barnhardt was obviously based on the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein, who was another icon of scientific and philosophical wisdom in the 1950s.[1]  By combing the icon on Einstein, who represented scientific wisdom with Lincoln, who represented political wisdom, the filmmakers were packaging their message for an American audience.  Even further, Klaatu was brought back to life when killed by the military, perhaps indicating a spiritual dimension to his message as well.

The Day The Earth Stood Still did not depict communists or communism directly, but the fears of nuclear annihilation and communism were linked.  Communism was not only a political threat to the United States, but since the development of nuclear weapons, it carried the threat of physical extinction.  The liberal vision of a planetary United Nations protecting common interests was one of the few positive images of the science fiction films of the 1950s.  The Day The Earth Stood Still belonged with the brief flowering of liberal films of the early 1950s.  It argued that nations should meet to thrash out their differences before it was too late.  Time and time again, it referred to the world’s ‘petty squabbles’ with a tone to suggest that they were adolescent temper tantrums.  The world should grow up and put aside nuclear weapons as ways of resolving disputes.  This would mean negotiation and discussions with the Russians which was brave suggestion in 1951.  Despite its popularity, The Day the Earth Stood Still did not begin a cycle of science fiction films with liberal leanings.  Although It Came From Outer Space (1953) was a notable exception, the vast majority of aliens in popular science fiction films of the 1950s were hostile towards the aliens.

Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world.  The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed.  A saucer landed in the Arctic near the North Pole and the military outpost stationed there was sent out to investigate.  They discovered flying saucer under the ice and a frozen alien.  The saucer was accidently destroyed, but the alien was taken back to camp encased in ice.

The crucial conflict in the film was not with the alien but between the military and the scientists over how to deal with the alien.  The scientists wanted to communicate with the alien in order to benefit mankind, while the military wanted to destroy it in order to save mankind.  The scientists headed by Dr Carrington believed that ‘There are no enemies in science, just phenomenon to study.’[2]  He didn’t realise the enormous threat from the alien, although he described it in chilling terms.  IT was a creature without ‘pain or pleasure’ which Dr Carrington envied for having ‘no emotions and no heart’.[3]  The communist system in Russia was also viewed as ‘scientific’, a system which worked along rational principles but ignored the role of the individual.  Carrington represented all these fears.[4]

Near the conclusion of the film, the tensions between the scientists and the military came to a head as Dr Carrington approached the rampaging alien to talk of peace.  Carrington was killed by the alien which then meets its doom at the hands of the military.  Screenwriter Ledered and Director Nyby – with the assistance of veteran Howard Hawks – were saying that in times of threat such as during the Cold War, scientists must defer to the military.  Scientists had to be geared to national interests.  When the scientist joined forces with the military, then the alien forces could be destroyed.

Made at the same time as The Day The Earth Stood Still, The Thing had a quite different view of the world.  The alien was a pure and simple menace which would not be negotiated with and had to be destroyed. 
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

The image of Dr Carrington being knocked aside was one which constantly recurred in films of the 1950s.  Horror writer Stephen King believed The Thing was the first movie of the 1950s to show the scientist in the role of the misguided appeaser.[5]  He wrote that for the average America, the scientists were deservedly vilified in American cinema in the 1950s as it was this group which had developed the atomic bomb and ushered in the nuclear age.  According to King, when Dr Carrington faced the alien, the image that would have come into the minds of the American audience was Hitler and Chamberlain.[6]  Appeasement by the United Kingdom had led to a dreadful war with Nazi Germany which had almost been lost.  It was better to fight than to appease.  When the alien pushed Carrington aside, an American audience could only see it in political terms.  Enemies had to be dealt with using a firm hand from the military.

The alien in The Thing was a popular depiction of communism.  It was a mobile vegetable and its seeds were planted in soil at the laboratory and they quickly grew.  If the alien escaped to more fertile ground, such as the Untied States – it could threaten the world.  This alien must be contained and stopped from going any further.  In other words, if the alien was not stopped at any early stage, then the threat would simply grow until it became impossible to resist.  This was the logic of Cold War containment which drive the United States into the Korean War and later to the Vietnam War.  To reinforce the point, after the alien had been destroyed, newspaperman Scotty warned people to remain vigilant: ‘Keep watching the skies.  Keep watching the skies.’[7]

It was the message and the images contained in The Thing that really dominated American science fiction cinema for the next six or seven years.  Appeasement meant destruction and appeasers were either traitors or fools who ended getting killed.  Despite its low budget, The Thing was one of the most successful science fiction films of the year, narrowly edging out The Day the Earth Stood Still.[8]  The success of these two films reflected an uncertainty by Americans on how to deal with the Russians.  One film argued that the nuclear threat needed to be addressed and the world should stop its petty squabbles, while the other said the appeasement caused destruction.  The popularity of both films indicated both the importance and the uncertainty of the issue in the American mind.


[1] Ronald W Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times, Avon, New York, 1984, pp. 659 – 710 discusses Einstein’s political role in post-war United States.

[2] The Thing RKO/Winchester (Howard Hawks), (d) Christian Nyby, (w) Charles Lederer.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Other films latched onto the fear of a society based on scientific principles.  In The Street With No Name (1948), gangster Alec Stiles, played by Richard Widmark, wanted to ‘build an organisation along scientific lines.’

[5] Stephen King, Danse Macabre: The Anatomy of Horror, MacDonald, London, 1981, p.173.

[6] ibid, p. 174.

[7] The Thing op cit.

[8] The Thing (1951) made $1.9 million profit, while The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) made $1.85 million.  See Hardy, Science Fiction, p. 387.

The evangelical nature of When World’s Collide

When Worlds Collide (1951) which dealt with the destruction of the planet Earth.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Nuclear fears of annihilation haunted the 1950s. This depressing view of world destruction continued in George Pal’s next film: When Worlds Collide. Many science fiction films had dealt with the destruction or breakdown of society, but the physical end of the planet was virtually a new area.[1] Cecil B. DeMille had originally been slated for the film in a much earlier period. The rights to the story by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer were originally bought in 1933 by Paramount, when director DeMille was planning a related project called “The End of the World.” DeMille had hoped to rush the project into production after filming wrapped on This Day and Age (1933), but the script was never even written and the studio scrapped the project.

In When Worlds Collide scientists discovered that a new sun and its planet were spinning across the galaxy toward earth.  The planet would move close to the earth, causing tidal waves and mass destruction, and then the new sun would engulf the earth.  The only hope for civilisation was a small spacecraft which could hop planets just before the fatal collision.  The film opened with biblical saying:

And God looked upon the earth and behold it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth … And God said unto Noah, ‘The end of flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and , behold I will destroy them with the earth…[2]

This was remarkably close to the vision of evangelist Billy Graham who, after President Truman had announced a nuclear weapon had been exploded in the Soviet Union, had preached in 1949 that the choice for America was now between religious revival and nuclear judgement.  The choice was between western culture founded on religion, and communism which was against all religion.  The country had abandoned the ten commandments and faced judgement for its misdeeds.[3]  In 1949, he delivered a sermon on the fate of the United States which rang with biblical doom.

Let us look for a moment at the political realm.  Let’s see what is happening – not only in the city of Los Angeles, but in the western world.  The world is divided into two sides.  ON the one side we see so-called Western culture.  Western culture and its fruit had its foundation in the bible, the Word of God, and in the revivals of he Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.  Communism on the other hand, had decided against God, against Christ, against the bible, against all religion.  Communism is not only an economic interpretation of life – Communism is a religion that is directed and motivated by the Devil himself who has declared war against almighty God.  Do you know that the Fifth Columnists, called Communists, are more rampant in Los Angeles than any other city in America?  We need a revival.[4]

Just as God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, Pompeii, and the Roman empire, he would destroy the United States, and Los Angeles in particular, if it strayed any longer or further from the moral path.  The nuclear threat was a biblical judgement for moral failings.  These speeches were the catalyst which launched Graham to become a nationwide media celebrity.

Graham’s apocalyptic vision of nuclear judgement resonated throughout When Worlds Collide.  The conclusion of the film showed the earth burning as it approached the surface of he new sun.  Nuclear-like explosions ripped from its surface as it was absorbed.  This image must have terrified the American public of the 1950s with its connotations of nuclear destruction.  The most chilling part of When Worlds Collide was the inevitable nature of the destruction of the earth, just as the cold war promised an inevitable nuclear conflagration.  The film may have reassured an American public at one level by showing that life would continue in some form after nuclear destruction.  However, with its biblical judgement of corruption and the inevitable nature of the world’s destruction, it was an uncomfortable film to watch.


[1][1] The theme had been used before in a film called The Comet (1910) and two German films Himmelskibet (1917) and Verdens Undergang (1916).  The two German films probably reflected some of the gloom as the First World War dragged on.  A few science fiction films saw the collapse of society such as the British film Things to Come (1936).  See the introduction to Phil Hardy, (ed.). Science Fiction: The Complete Film Sourcebook, William Morrow, New York, 1984 for a discussion of the trend.

[2] When Worlds Collide Paramount (George Pal), (w) Sidney Boehm, (d) Rudolp Mate.

[3] Mark Silk, Spiritual Politics: Religion and America since World War II, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1988, p. 65.

[4] William Graham, Revival in Our Time: The Story of Billy Graham Evangelistic Campaign Evangelistic Campaigns, Including Six Of His Sermons, 2nd edn enl. Van Kampen Press, Wheaton, Illinois, 1950, pp. 72-73.

Science fiction explores communism

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

Invaders filled the screens of cinemas and drive-ins across the United States in the 1950s.  Aliens blasted ray guns, rose from the depths of the sea, took over human bodies, mutated in atomic testing sites, flew flying saucers, lurked in swamps and wasted cities in their wrath.  Many films critics have seen the alien invasion films as representing American fears of communist invasion and subversion.[1]  The themes of these films clustered around fears of communist military strength.  The United States had both the biggest economy and enormous military powers, yet it found itself threatened by the USSR armed with nuclear weapons.  Communists were seen as an evil, beyond even religious redemption, and they now possessed weapons which could destroy the United States.  It was a crushing fear that haunted the 1950s.  A fear that science fiction helped ease.

The sheer number of films produced means they cannot be overlooked in any survey of films dealing with communism.  It has been estimated that 154 alien films were released in the United States during the 1950s.[2]  These films were not overwhelming box office success, but the fact that they enjoyed continued popularity indicates that they were striking a chord.

The most popular science fiction films of the decade in descending order (taking inflation into account) were 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea which finished fourth in 1954 making $8 million in rentals, Journey to the Centre of the Earth which finished 11th in the 1959 making $4.7 million, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms made $2 million in 1953, The Thing finished 47th in 1951 making $1.95 million, The Day the Earth Stood Still finished 52nd in 1951 making $1.8 million, War of the Worlds made $2 million in 1953, Them! Finished 50th in 1954 making $2.2 million, When World’s Collide finished 72nd in 1951, It Came from Outer Space made $1.65 million in 1953, This Island Earth was ranked 75th in 1955 making $1.7 million, It Came from Beneath the Sea was ranked 76th in 1955, Forbidden Planet was ranked 62nd in 1956 making $1.6 million, Destination Moon was ranked 88th in 1950 making $1.3 million.  Other films which made the Variety lists included The Fly (1958), Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), Rocketship X-M (1950) and Earth Versus the Flying Saucers (1956) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).[3]  The films were not an overwhelming success yet there was, nonetheless, a steady market for them.

Destination Moon (1950), which focused on the first man- made trip to the moon.  It was a simple story and its anti-communist message was obvious.  American industry had to back a space launch to thwart any similar moves by foreign powers.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The first successful science fiction films of the decade owed their popularity to special effects rather than tight script writing, yet there were still strong anti-communist themes.  Producer George Pal’s trademark was his exceptional special effects and his first effort was an uncomplicated film called Destination Moon (1950), which focused on the first man- made trip to the moon.  It was a simple story and its anti-communist message was obvious.  American industry had to back a space launch to thwart any similar moves by foreign powers.  General Thayer explained these ideas to a meeting of businessman called to raise money for he project.

The reason is quite simple.  We are not the only ones who know that the moon can be reached.  We are not the only ones who are planning to get there.  The race is on.  And we will win, because there is absolutely no way to stop an attack force form outer space.  The first country to use the moon for the launching of missiles will control the earth.  That, gentlemen, is the most important military fact of this century.[4]

An elderly businessman stood up at the end of the Thayer’s speech and said it was the duty of business to support the venture.[5]  Control of space would mean world domination.  The impact of this idea was later seen in the panic that gripped America in the wake of the Sputnik launch in 1957 as people feared nuclear weapons could be launched from space on a defenceless United States.

Destination Moon also suggested that communists were at work subverting the American space program – and by implication other industries.  The moon launch project was hampered by bureaucratic obstacles and the threat of something more sinister.  The scientific group received a telegram from a commission which prohibited a launch, as a protest meeting had been called to stop the launch.  Jim answered that it was ‘propaganda’ and that someone with money and brains was ‘out to get us’.[6]  The underlying tone of the film was that dissent, even democratic dissent, was identical to treason when trying to stop progress.  Jim’s remarkable statement about public opinion equaling propaganda reflected the blinkered approach that the authorities had in dealing with dissent.  Even a protest against an atomic missile launch was organised by malevolent forces out to undermine American security.  The film fitted in neatly with the studios’ anti-communist rhetoric of the early 1950s.

Rocketship X-M (1950) was made after, but was released slightly before, Destination Moon (1950).  It had essentially the same idea about space travel but with a different twist.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Rocketship X-M (1950) was made after, but was released slightly before, Destination Moon (1950).  It had essentially the same idea about space travel but with a different twist.  The space crew left earth, were sent off course and landed on Mars.  The crew found that Mars an advanced civilization had been wiped out by nuclear warfare was now inhabited by hostile mutant aliens.  The crew returned to earth to deliver a warning about nuclear warfare.  Unknown World (1950) had a similar bleak message about the world’s future.  Scientist Kilian believed that the world was headed for nuclear devastation and perhaps some hope lay in burrowing beneath the earth’s surface.  The film began with a montage of nuclear explosions and devastation and the voice of Kilian calling for help in finding a safe and secure world.  Headed by Kilian, a small party set off to dig beneath the surface, but the world they found was sterile and they were forced to return to the surface.  If Kilian was correct, then there was no escape from nuclear destruction.


[1] Among others are Peter Biskind, Seeing is believing: How Hollywood Taught Us To Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties, Pantheon, New York, 1983 and Nora Sayre, Running Time: Films of the Cold War, Dial, New York, 1982.  Not all critics share this viewpoint see Patrick Luciano, Them or Us: Archetypal Interpretations of Fifties Alien Invasion Films, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1987 for Jungian interpretation of the alien invasion cycle.

[2] The filmography in Luciano, Them or Us, lists 154 films, but it must be treated with caution as Luciano tends to throw in any type of related film to build up his case.  The number can only be used as a guide.

[3] The lists were printed in Variety 4 January 1950, 3 January 1951, 2 January 1952, 7 January 1953, 6 January 1954, 5 January 1955, 25 January 1956, 2 January 1957 and 8 January 1958.  The lists derive from John Fleming, ‘Science Fiction, printed in David Pirie (ed.) Anatomy of the Movies, Macmillian, New York, pp. 272 – 281, which are also based on the Variety lists.

[4] Destination Moon, (d) George Pal, (w) Rip Van Ronkel, Robert Heinlein, James O’Hanlon

[5] Destination Moon op cit.

[6] ibid.

The conservative backlash

The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

The themes raised in High Noon were also picked up by those who supported the investigations.  The Bounty Hunter (1954) can be read as a pro-McCarthyite film and as rebuttal of High Noon.  Randolph Scott played a bounty hunter who arrived in the frontier town of Twin Peaks on the trail of three armed robbers.  The townspeople resented his appearance and some with guilty secrets left town.  He had no idea who the culprits were and bided his time.  The townspeople want them to leave because they don’t like the past being dug up.  The people then tried to buy him off but he would not be deflected from his pursuit of the criminals.  The film can be read as a defence of HUAC investigators who had to burrow into the past of respectable people to uncover their dark secrets, no matter what the cost.  Some of the criminals occupied high positions.  One was even sheriff, but the criminals were only able to maintain their positions by blackmail and threats.  By rooting out these criminal elements, true peace was attained in the town.

Director and producer Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were disgusted by Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and the cycle it created and set out to refute it.  Some of that anger can be seen in an interview with John Wayne in 1974 when asked about High Noon screenwriter Carl Foreman:

Hawks was convinced that professional law enforcement officers would refuse help, even in a desperate situation.  In High Noon, Gary Cooper rejected the help of two men who offer assistance – a drunk and a kid.  The retired marshal refused to help Kane because he would be a burden.  In Rio Bravo, Chance chose a drunk, a kid and a retired marshal to help him against the gunfighters.  For Hawks and Wayne, authority was responsible and benign.  It defended the weak and attacked the guilty and the best people could do was to simply co-operate with it.  It was not to be questioned or assisted, it was simply to be obeyed.[4]

What about Carl Foreman?  I’ll tell you about Carl Foreman and his rotten High Noon.  Everybody says High Noon is a great picture because Tiomkin and Grace Kelly were in it … It’s the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my life.  The last thing is old Coop putting the United States marshall’s badge under his feet and stepping on it.  I’ll never regret having helped run Foreman out of town … Here’s the church, supposed to be an American church and all the women are sitting on one side of the aisle, and all the men on the other.  What kind of American church is that?  And all those women are getting out there and fight those killers and all the men are afraid.  What kind of Western town is that?[1]

Wayne was mistaken about the film, Cooper never stands on the badge.  The church also has men and women sitting together on both sides.  These statements indicate that Wayne may have either never seen the film or not viewed it closely.  Nonetheless, having seen it or not, Wayne despised the film.  Hawks, on the other hand, wasn’t as violent in his denunciation of High Noon.  He said in an interview about his film:

Rio Bravo was made because I didn’t like a picture called High Noon … I didn’t think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help and finally the Quaker wife had to save him.  That isn’t my idea of a good western sheriff.[2]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

But Wayne and Hawks were able to have their say in the Rio Bravo (1959).  In the film, John T. Chance, played by John Wayne, was the sheriff of Rio Bravo who arrested Joe, the brother of a ruthless rancher Nathan Burdette.  The rancher swore that he would get his brother out of jail and began to gather an army of hired guns to do the job.  In one scene Chances’ friend Pat Wheeler, played by Ward Bond, asks him if he needs help.

Suppose I got them.  What would I have.  Some well meaning amateurs.  Most of them worried about their wives and kids.  Burdette has got 30 to 40 men.  All professionals.  The only thing that worries them is seeing their pay … All it would be doing is making more targets to shoot at.  A lot of people would get hurt.  Joe Burdette isn’t worth it.  He isn’t worth one of whose who’d be killed.[3]

As a refutation of High Noon and its anti-HUAC sympathies, Rio Bravo was quite weak.  The film was made long after the issues raised by the HUAC investigations were gone.  If it was a rebuttal at all, it was a rebuttal on the weakest terms.  Its conservative message of the responsibility of authority fitted in with many films of the right.  Perhaps what made this film so popular was that these authority figures demanded that no freedoms be lost while the fight was on.  It was ranked 8th in the 1959 with rentals of $5.2 million.[5]

The persistence of the theme of the relationship between the lone sheriff figure, the violent thereat and townspeople in Westerns from 1952 until the end of the decade showed the relationship between authority and the people was an area of tremendous concern.  The answers given in the films were not consistent and came from all points of the political spectrum.  The films may not have provided the answers for the audience but their popularity showed that the questions about authority and dealing with threats were being asked.


[1] Playboy May 1974 interview by Mike Parkinson in Donald Shepherd, Robert Slatzer and Dave Grayson, Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, New York, 1983, p. 244.  A careful examination of the badge throwing scene shows a second badge from an earlier take buried behind his foot.  It appeared that Cooper was standing on the second badge from an earlier take.  Wayne may have heard about this flaw in the film second hand which could have distorted his perception.

[2] Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, University of California Press, London, 1982, p. 136.

[3] Rio Bravo, (d) Howard Hawks, (w) Jules Furtham, Leigh Brackett.

[4] This point is remarkably close to the position put by Mankiewicz against DeMille about the role of authority.  Adding strength to Elia Kazan’s belief that it was the conservatives that defeated DeMille, rather than the left.  Elia Kazan A Life, Doubleday, New York, 1988, p. 393.

[5] Stenberg, Reel Facts, p. 22.

High Noon and its successors

Riding Shotgun also had anti-McCarthyism themes. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Kevin Brianton

Strategic Communication Senior Lecturer, Melbourne: Australia.

High Noon had many successors which took up the various themes about McCarthyism in differing ways.  Riding Shotgun (1954) again looked at the political situation in allegorical terms, but with disdain for the hysteria created by McCarthy.  A respected guard on the stage coach Larry Delon, played by Randolph Scott, attempted to warn the town of an impending raid on the town’s ‘Bank Club’ by a gang of criminals.  Delon was almost lynched by the townspeople who believed that he was responsible for the shooting of a stagecoach.  A posse was formed to chase the outlaws who were actually planning to rob the undefended town.  Delon was bailed up in a building throughout the film while the town attempted to lynch him.  Eventually the outlaws raided and Delon foiled the robbery and regained the town’s respect.  The film was not as sharp in its criticism of the worn as in High Noon, but there were some strong scenes where Scott walked through the town with every eye on him, thinking; ‘The city had already tried and found me guilty.[1]  The film was not critical of the law enforcement agencies as the deputy Sheriff was depicted as a sensible man desperately trying to see that no one gets hurt in the town’s desire to lynch Scott.

Unlike High Noon, the film showed that the town was willing to fight, but needed firm leadership.  Without that leadership, the town could turn into a lynch-mob and attack the innocent.  Riding Shotgun was a conservative film that asked for respect for the traditional law enforcement, rather than the hysteria of the mob.

Although not strictly a western, as it was set in contemporary America, Bad Day at Black Rock (1954) was one of the most clear cut attacks on the McCarthyite era within the genre.  Bad Day at Black Rock was directed by John Sturges, who was one of the petitioners for Jospeh L. Mankiewicz, and produced by Dore Schary who protested against the Waldorf Declaration.  Schary would work on the film during the day and watch the Army-McCarthy hearings at night.[2]  It was clear that these events had an impact of the filmmakers as the film was a concerted liberal attack on the McCarthyite era.

John J. Macreedy, played by Spencer Tracy, was a one-armed stranger who stopped at an isolated desert town in California.  His aim was to give to a Japanese farmer a Congressional Medal of Honor, won by his son, who served with Macreedy during the war and saved his life.  It was the first time the train had stopped in four years and the townspeople were clearly threatened by his presence.  Macreedy stumbled across the fact that the town’s leader Reno, played by Robert Ryan, killed the Japanese farmer at the outbreak of the Second World War.  He described the town as being taken over by the ‘guerillas.’  The town was aware of the crime but afraid to fight Reno who was a power-crazed racist and considered the lynching of the Japanese farmer to be a patriotic act.  One of his henchmen Pete Wirth, played by John Ericson, said ‘We were drunk, patriotic drunk,’ to explain the lynching.[3]

Reno was the closest Hollywood got to a portrayal of Joseph McCarthy until the depiction of the crazed Senator in The Manchurian Candidate (1962).  He manipulated and terrified the people of the town with the crime.  He described Macreedy as a ‘virus’ which had given the town a fever and had to be destroyed.  Very similar to the way, McCarthy depicted communists as an infection of the American political system.  The Sheriff, played by Dean Jagger, was ineffectual and complaint to Reno’s orders, just as McCarthy blustered his way over the legal system.  Others simply tried to ignore the crime and remained in apathetic fear.  When Macreedy faced and defeated Reno, the town was forced to face the collective guilt of their silence.  The conclusion of the film was optimistic as it showed the town could prosper again with the departure of Reno, just as the American community had to realize the enormity of the damage inflicted by the McCarthyite era before it could begin to move forward again.

The Fastest Gun Alive continued the themes of High Noon. Image courtesy of eMovieposter.

Other films carried similar messages to High Noon throughout the 1950s.  In At Gunpoint (1955) a shopkeeper played by Fred MacMurray killed a bank robber with a lucky shot.  He was called a hero, but his fellow townspeople deserted him when the robbers plotted reprisals.  MacMurray eventually convinced the town to fight and they defeated the outlaws when they return.  In The Fastest Gun Alive (1956), the townspeople cower in a church while a gunslinger threatened to burn down the town unless their reluctant local hero cam out for a showdown.  They eventually forced him out to face the villain.

In The Tin Star (1957), a sheriff had to stand up to a town turned into a lynch mob to re-establish the authority of law and order.  The prisoners inside his jail were clearly guilty and it was certain they would be hanged or jailed.  The film argued that the lynch mob was not the answer.  Only when the leader of the lynchers was stared down, humiliated and then destroyed did peace come to the town.  If the mob was equated with McCarthyism, the legal approach of the sheriff was the best way for American society to go.  The central figure was a man similar to High Noon’s Will Kane who was bitter and resentful about society but at the end of the film, he picked up ‘the tin star’ to renew the fight against criminals.[4]  Law and order depended on the professional pride and determination of law enforcement officers.  Without them, the weak townspeople would be at the mercy of the bandits and agitators.  The central theme of these films was that the town by its inaction or corruption could collapse into lawlessness.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

As the 1950s drew to a close, director Jack Arnold made an interesting western called No Name on the Bullet (1959) which can be read as an anti-McCarthyite tract.  A stranger played by Audie Murphy rode into town and registered at a hotel.  He was John Gant who made his living goading people into a fight and then killing them in self defence.  His appearance caused a slow breakdown of the town as prominent citizens remembered guilty secrets of the past and were afraid that he has been sent to kill them.  Old antagonisms began to rise an people committed suicide or left town or tried to bribe Gant. The films focused on what fear can do to people.  If you were Gant’s target then you were already dead.  The most effective scenes were when a banker with a guilty secret in his past attempted to buy Gant off the trail.  But Gant would not leave the town until his intended victim was dead.  The law enforcement officers can’t stop him as he was too deadly with the gun, and even managed to stare down the entire town when they tried to drive him out.  The atmosphere of paranoia and fear which pervaded the film with Gant’s arrival and Murphy’s edgy performance as Gant make it one of the most effective successors to High Noon.  At the end of the film, Gant ensured that his target was dead, but he was wounded and rode away.  He could certainly return and wreck havoc again.


[1] Riding Shotgun Warner, (d) Andre De Toth, (w) Tom Blackburn.

[2] Dore Schary, Heyday: An Autobiography of Dore Schary, Berkley Books, Boston, 1969, p. 273.  The Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the end of the political career of McCarthy.  He charged the army with tolerating communist subversion.  Televised hearings were held before the Senate Armed Forces Committee which left McCarthy thoroughly discredited.  For an account see William Manchester, The Glory and The Dream, Bantam, New York, 1975, pp. 700-716.

[3] Bad Day at Black Rock, (w) John Sturges, (w) Milliard Kaufman

[4] One of the sources for High Noon was a story called The Tin Star by John Cunningham which appeared in Colliers on 6 December 1947.  Behlmer, p. 270.